When off-the-wall is spot on

Developing an effective e-commerce strategy demands an approach that breaks free from the old corporate straitjacket. Even the...

Developing an effective e-commerce strategy demands an approach that breaks free from the old corporate straitjacket. Even the Dilbert-esque cubicle is under threat

E-business

A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group suggested that the success of a company's e-commerce strategy was dependent not solely on how the organisational structure is put in place to target e-commerce, but also on issues such as getting the right people, mindset, culture and processes. It suggests that the best organisational design in the world cannot make up for the wrong infrastructure.

To take an example. One organisation wanted to create an online business for classified advertisements. It rightly spun off a venture as a separate unit, because it understood that you have to be prepared to cannibalise your own business. It then went about recruiting and hiring staff from the old business.

Big mistake, because as the Boston group suggests, although the "new" staff were enthusiastic about joining a start-up, they lacked the mindset to make it a success. In addition, the culture and processes of the new business were only a mirror of the same processes in the original organisation. In other words, there were traditionally unwieldy management processes, and unimaginative remuneration. So the new online business failed to take off.

In such cases, perhaps a completely different group of people is necessary, and that can only come from recruiting from outside the organisation.

But when you can achieve it, it works. Boston cited one company which first staffed its online business with about 80% of internal candidates, and then made up the numbers with 20% of outsiders. Yet it was only when the company reversed the ratio - 80% outsiders, 20% home grown - that the business began to be a success.

Creating an off-the-wall culture also helps. That might mean putting a new team in a completely different building, so that it feels different. Encouraging a casual dress approach at all times - not just laid back Fridays - will also minimise the old corporate straitjacket.

At some US companies, which inevitably are further up the originality curve, they go even further.

One, Atlanta-based Employease, which provides software to automate human resources, benefits and payroll operations, even has a meeting once a month for all of its staff, from the most senior to the most junior. The meeting includes presentations from senior staff on financial matters, from product teams on critical new releases, and even sketches from business development staff.

The meetings also feature the cringe-making scenario of having new staff talk about why they joined the company. That sounds like poor taste to me. I'm sure I'd be looking at the floor while listening to such a presentation, hoping it would be over soon.

In other organisations, the mindset might be created by getting staff to "work" together more closely. At one Massachusetts-based coffee company, staff in a "lunch club" even prepare meals for each other!

Eventually, such an approach will also stretch to the office surroundings. It is unlikely that the traditional office down the corridor with a window is going to encourage the right "dotcom" mindset. Now, even the cubicle is under threat from ideas such as having an "open-shut" approach where rolling screens encourage people to switch between group work and privacy. There's even a company, Resolve, providing new ideas on how best to set up office furniture to create the right culture.

Admittedly, some of these ideas will be labelled off-the-wall by some, and just plain crazy by others. But the fact remains, that when you set up your e-business operation, you will have to find ways of making the staff there feel and work differently from the old company.

Otherwise, as Boston points out, the online company will only be a mirror of the old organisation's online failing.

Or to coin a phrase, "How differently do you want to work today?"

David Bicknell

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